Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Wanting to be a part of the solution, how the Cal women's basketball team took the steps that were in their power

This is Cal Basketball / These athletes have a voice and a platform.
Now, they want to be part of the solution.

Cal women's basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb is as competitive an individual as any you'll find in college basketball. Winning is important and she sets pretty high standards for her nationally-ranked team. While losing any game is disappointing -- especially when it's by two points in overtime as the Bears experienced during a 58-56 road loss against unranked Long Beach State on Saturday afternoon -- Gottlieb admitted afterwards that she's not sure she's "ever been more proud of these players or our whole team and staff."

Cal's student-athletes have a voice and a platform -- and, in Gottlieb, the women's basketball team has a mentor who encourages them to speak up and act out. In an ever-changing sports landscape, in which athletes are being encouraged to take a stand and become leaders in social activism, Gottlieb understands that her team "wants to be a part of the solution, and they took the steps that were in their power today."

In an interview with EspnW, Gottlieb said: "I trust our players to express themselves in ways that are proactive and productive and not destructive. Our players know they represent us all the time, whether it's at a protest, or in class or at church, or at the movies."

When the 18th-ranked Bears took the court for their warm-ups at the Walter Pyramid arena in Long Beach, Calif., the entire team -- all 10 players, eight of whom are African-American -- wore plain black t-shirts that brought attention to lives lost -- recently and throughout history. The names, which were written in Sharpie ink on strips of masking tape and affixed to each player's t-shirt, included: Emmett Till, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tayvon Martin and Oscar Grant. Each elicited "strong emotions from everyone."

"As student-athletes at Cal, our young women have a voice and a platform, and they chose to use it today."

Across the country in South Bend, Ind., the Notre Dame women's basketball team came out for their pregame warmups at home against Michigan wearing "I Can't Breathe" t-shirts last Saturday. Afterwards, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said he was proud of the stand shown by his players. "They are students first and you want students at a university to be passionate about things, to be engaged in conversations about social issues," he said. "If there's anything I worry it's that our kids get too focused on the athletic side of it and don't do enough of the other things."

Back in Berkeley, which has been a hot bed for protests and has drawn associate head coach Charmin Smith and All-America candidate Brittany Boyd to the streets to participate, it's something echoed by Gottlieb, too. "We can talk about X's and O's all day," she said in a statement released after the game on Calbears.com, the university's athletic website, "but in reality there are bigger life issues and the moral consciousness of our players is something I'm proud of. I don't tell them what to think, but I do encourage them to think."

According to Gottlieb, earlier in the week, the team's captains -- including seniors Boyd and Reshanda Gray -- came to their coach and said that as a team they wanted to wear "I Can't Breathe" t-shirts next Sunday when the Bears play at home against Louisville, a game which is expected to draw their largest crowd of the season to Haas Pavilion. Then, on Saturday, following a morning shootaround, Gottlieb and the team "were quickly met with images from our campus that were disturbing."

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the images were enlarged photographs of lynched African Americans hanging from the university's famed Sather Gate with the words "I Can't Breathe" affixed to each.

"These images may have been to bring awareness to injustice, or they may have been an act of cruelty; either way, they elicited strong emotions from everyone. The entire team came to me. They were compelled to act. We met for 45 minutes about how to best use our voices. As a group, they decided to wear shirts ... and to stand and say that black lives matter; all lives matter."

Despite showing great fight to the end, Gottlieb labeled Cal's overtime loss to Long Beach State, which was the Bears' second straight defeat after opening the season with seven consecutive victories, as "brutal". Yet, she chose to stress the positives: "Our players wearing handmade shirts to symbolize something poignant and important is what I will remember proudly from today. I love this team and staff for who they are as people."

Waiting for her flight home Saturday night, Gottlieb had some time to pause and reflect. "Sometimes," she wrote on her Facebook page, "it's about so much more than the game."

Photos: Courtesy of Cal women's basketball Twitter feed.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Men in Blazers: Offbeat and quirky, they love their football

Downtown Abbey meets Men in Blazers / Michael Davies (L) and
 Roger Bennett (R) share a visit from "Mr. Barrow", Rob James-Collier
during this week's show.

Michael Davies and Roger Bennett like to discuss football -- the "beautiful game" not the American gladiator version played in the NFL -- and they wear blazers. Usually at the same time. Their little media empire "Men in Blazers", which includes a podcast, a website, a Facebook page, a Twitter feed (@MeninBlazers) and a weekly TV show on NBC Sports Network, is driven by the belief that "soccer is America's sport of the future. As it has been since 1972."

Very simply, Davies and Bennett, both balding English blokes -- the former (nicknamed "Davo") is an American TV game show producer while the latter is a bespectacled-but-serious documentary journalist -- are funny and articulate. And, thanks to their small but passionate following with "Men in Blazers", they are taking advantage of a growing American fascination with international football, specifically the English Premier League. It's the kind of show you can equally enjoy with your choice of morning stimulant, be it a cup of coffee or a pint of Guinness.

Beginning in 2011, "Men in Blazers" started as a weekly podcast on Grantland.com, the ESPN-owned sports and pop culture website, and Davies and Bennett offered their quirky and off-beat analysis of recent Premier League matches as well as coverage of the UEFA Champions League and other international fixtures. Davies roots for Chelsea while Bennett holds a dear spot for Everton. The popularity of their podcast has carried over nicely to television, where the British duo were regularly featured on ESPN's coverage of the FIFA World Cup tournament from Brazil last summer. In September, "Men in Blazers" became a lovely complement to NBCSN's weekly Premier League coverage and the show originates from cozy confines in New York City.

According to their website, the aim of "Men in Blazers" is "nothing less than to enlighten the masses to the wildly entertaining world of soccer and the English Premier League in particular. Immersed in the high and low culture of the beautiful game, the program mixes analysis and guest appearances in equal measure, with the aim of providing an intelligent yet often humorous, and always passionate, soccer broadcast."

On the air, the "Men in Blazers" analysis is filled with similes, World War I poetry and lots of pop culture references and inside jokes -- so listen and watch with a keen ear and eye. They love to answer fan e-mail and acknowledge their favorite fan Tweets on placards. And, they're obsessed by PBS Masterpiece Theater's "Downton Abbey". So, it's not surprising that they invited Rob James-Collier, who plays Mr. Barrow, the reviled "Downton Abbey" character everyone loves to loathe from the wildly-popular British drama, to be a guest on a recent show. Needless to say, it was highly-entertaining television.

"We've tried to revel in the narrative of football, which for us, is like an elite athletic competition fused with the storylines of a telenovela," Bennett told Rolling Stone in a recent interview. "Albert Camus had a great quote, 'Everything I know about morality and the obligations of men, I owe it to football.' We agree with that. For us, football is life, like it was for Camus, I guess. Never met the bloke. Would've loved him to come on the show."

Note: The weekly "Men in Blazers" TV show airs Monday nights at 10 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Network with repeats on Saturday mornings.

Photo: Courtesy of Men in Blazers website.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Confronting protesters: Embarrassed and mad at Oakland

Beauty's Bagel Shop / Local Oakland business was vandalized but not looted.

I feel embarrassed to admit to my friends that I live in Oakland, Calif. And, it has nothing to do with the mediocrity of the hometown NFL Raiders and their dismal 1-11 record this season.

Instead, I live in a city in which the Oakland Police Department is afraid to confront protesters who willingly and brazenly break the law. It happened during the Occupy protests in 2011 and, again, in 2013, during the aftermath of the death of 17-year-old African American Trayvon Martin, who was fatally shot by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, in Sanford, Fla.

Once again, the Oakland protesters showed they're in charge. They showed no fear. For three consecutive nights last week, what started as peaceful protests against a Ferguson, Mo. grand jury decision that decided not to indict a white police officer, Darren Wilson, for the killing of an 18-year-old black teenager, Michael Brown, turned into chaos, vandalism and looting. By the third night, by all accounts, the streets of Ferguson were a safer place to be than Oakland's streets.

I stayed home, monitored the situation via local and cable TV news, Twitter and Facebook, and did not go out for three consecutive nights. I stayed away from the downtown Oakland fitness center I regularly use most early evenings after work. Even though I reside about four miles from the downtown City Center along Broadway -- Ground Zero for most Oakland protests -- I feared for my safety. Looking back, I'm glad I didn't get caught in traffic gridlock on the I-580 the first night when protesters on foot managed to shutdown a portion of this busy interstate freeway that cuts across a wide swatch of Oakland.

Shame on our lame duck mayor, Jean Quan. Sure, she pushed for police officers to show tolerance towards the hundreds of protesters who turned out each night last week before Thanksgiving, then moved on across the bay to San Francisco last Friday and Saturday -- and I am all for being tolerant. But when push comes to shove, I want our police to uphold the law -- not look the other way for fear of a lawsuit.

Sadly, local merchants and small business owners suffered the brunt of the senseless violence that befell Oakland for three consecutive nights. One of them was Beauty's Bagel Shop, which is located on a busy stretch of Telegraph Avenue, between West MacArthur Boulevard and 40th Street, in the city's Temescal neighborhood. I am friends with the owners, Amy Remsen and Blake Joffe.

Last Tuesday night, during a march up Telegraph Avenue from downtown, vandals tagged the front entrance of Beauty's (3838 Telegraph Avenue) with spray paint and wrote in big block letters: RIP MICHAEL BROWN. It could have been much worse as the protesters started a street fire less than a block away near the intersection of Telegraph Avenue and 38th Street before moving on up Telegraph where there were more acts of senseless vandalism and looting, too.

Fortunately there were no broken windows and no looting took place at Beauty's. Just graffiti. To its credit, the popular bagel bakery, which has been a local success story since it opened in August 2012, was open for business Wednesday morning just hours after the defacement. However, I can't imagine that it felt like business as usual after what took place the night before.

On its Twitter feed, Beauty's responded to its customers, tweeting: "We were luck enough to only suffer graffiti. Sending our thoughts to those businesses that sustained more damage."

I stayed away from Beauty's for a few days, then returned after Thanksgiving, as usual, early on Saturday morning to buy bagels and scones for the weekend. By then, the graffiti had been removed at Beauty's, and while things seemed normal and business was brisk, still, one wonders if they will be so lucky the next time there's an ugly protest.

There's a big difference between what's happening in other cities and what's happening in Oakland. I support the right to free speech and civilized protest. It's what sets my country apart from others less fortunate, less democratic. However, when people stop acting in a civilized manner and behave in a disrespectful way towards law-abiding citizens and deface public property, then it's time to for my city's elected officials to take decisive action and keep my city safe.

Photo: Courtesy of sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Joni Mitchell at 71: Always attending to her imagination

Joni Mitchell / Self portrait of a true original 

Last weekend, I read with great interest an online interview with the singer-songwriter-artist Joni Mitchell in Maclean's, the Canadian national weekly current affairs magazine. In it, she confessed: "I don't watch news. I'm not a fish so I don't want to get caught in the net so I'm not on the web. I only use my iPhone as a camera, I don't even know my number."

Interviews with Mitchell are rare. However, the Canadian-born Mitchell has surfaced from her Los Angeles residence to drum interest in her latest project, a box set called Love Has Many Faces: A Quartet, a Ballet, Waiting To Be Danced. Released this week, it combines her career as a Grammy-winning musician with being a painter and a dance enthusiast in collecting 53 songs from her 40 years of recording. Mitchell curated the collection, designed the package which includes six new paintings, and wrote an autobiographical text illuminating her recording process.

I've been fond of Mitchell's music going way back to my university days as a student at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota and as a disc jockey for the college's WMCN-FM radio station. While I have an appreciation for Mitchell's folk music roots -- her 1970 album Blue is a must-listen -- I've always been attracted to her jazzy side, which surfaced in 1974 with Court and Spark and a year later with The Hissing of Summer Lawns, my two favorite Joni Mitchell albums.

During her Maclean's interview with the writer Elio Iannacci, the 71-year-old Mitchell referred to the younger generation as the "push-button generation of today." She was asked: "What is impairing us the most?" She answered matter-of-factly: "Everything is about channel changing. It has ruined attention spans. I spaced out in school but I didn't develop attention-deficit issues because I placed attention on my imagination and ignored the curriculum," said Mitchell.

"I didn't have a million news feeds to contend with. It is just like when I have people to my house to watch a film -- it's like living in a Robert Altman movie! They are always talking over each other. We are all losing the plot. It's an addiction to phones and too much information."

Speaking of an addiction to our phones -- and, by extension, to too much information -- in last Saturday's The New York Times, contributing writer Timothy Egan hit upon a theme of digital narcissism in his opinion article "Grand Tour of the Self." He wrote: "Technology, when it shrinks the globe, or makes life less burdensome, or provides easier access to knowledge, is a wonderful thing. The smartphone has dramatically changed the world, mostly for the better. The jet aircraft opened far reaches of the planet to average people. And the selfie stick, as a simple device to take a better portrait, is largely harmless.

"But when technology changes the travel experience itself -- from immersion and surprise to documentary one-upmanship -- it defeats the point of the journey. We travel to freshen senses dulled by routine. We travel for discovery and reinvention."

Thanks to the popularity of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, we've allowed everyone to become the star of their own movie in their "twenty-teens." Additionally, foodies have become obsessive about photographing what they eat -- especially when dining out -- and posting it online for instant gratification.

Maybe, we have become victims of "nature deficit disorder," so called because in the words of Egan, it's "a symptom of being connected to everything, while being unable to connect to anything."

Which brings us back to Joni Mitchell and the repercussions that future generations face now that everyone spends so much time on their smartphones. She told Maclean's: "My grandson and I were sailing on a boat and he said, 'It's boring.' I asked, 'How can you say it's boring? The sun is shining, we're going across the water so fast...' And he said, 'Not fast enough.' Technology has given him this appetite."

Fortunately, spending half of each year in the province of British Columbia enables Mitchell an opportunity to escape American culture and step away from the "star-making machinery behind the popular song" while returning to her Canadian roots. "I just drop off in the bush. My life has been somewhat overstimulated so I'll never get bored.

"I don't belong to this modern world and I'm out of it, but I don't want in."

Joni Mitchell self-portrait courtesy of jonimitchell.com.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Grace Cathedral at 50: Defining beautiful architecture

A San Francisco sacred space / Grace Cathedral turns 50 this week.

How does one define beautiful architecture?

"Space has always been the spiritual dimension of architecture," the 20th century Canadian architect and urban planner Arthur Erickson once said. "It is not the physical statement of the structure so much as what it contains that moves us."

Grace Cathedral is the third
largest Episcopal cathedral
in the United States.
One of my favorite spaces in the entire world -- and one that I've experienced many times during the past two decades -- sits tall atop Nob Hill in San Francisco. The vibrant city's famous cable cars pass by it on the California Street side of this sacred space. It's a place that I return to often on Sundays, especially during Lent for Easter Sunday and in the season of Advent to worship on Christmas Eve. 

That space is Grace Cathedral, a place to explore; a place to go deeper in one's faith. It is the third largest Episcopal cathedral in the nation, and this week, Grace Cathedral turns 50.

Each time I climb the staircase that frames the cathedral's entrance on Taylor Street and enter this sacred space, I am moved by the beauty of the cathedral's French Gothic architecture, designed by Lewis P. Hobart; the Ghiberti Doors that are opened for special occasions; and the vaulted ceiling arches. There is much to admire in this exalted sacred space -- and photograph, too.

The Keith Haring AIDS Chapel altarpiece.
There's the lyrical Rose window above the main entrance with its the colorful prism-like reflections of light beaming through it and through the stained-glass windows, bathing the pillars and indoor labyrinth in beautiful colors.

There's the historical aisle murals that were painted by Polish painter Jan Henryk De Rosen between 1949-1950 and composed in a style blending the stylistic elements of early Italian masters Giotto and Mantegna.

And, there's the Keith Haring AIDS Chapel altarpiece.

Colorful prism-like colors beam
through the stained-glass
windows onto the indoor
labyrinth at Grace Cathedral.
Cathedrals have long been places of pilgrimage, and Grace Cathedral is celebrating its past, its present and its sustainable future. Work was begun on the present cathedral structure in 1928 and its completion and consecration took place in 1964. Duke Ellington performed his televised Concert of Sacred Music inside Grace Cathedral on September 26, 1965.

I enjoy worshiping at Grace Cathedral, absorbed by its sacred space, which is defined by the beauty of its art, including its medieval and contemporary furnishings. There's also the echoing sound of the majestic Æolian-Skinner pipe organ; the 44 bell carillon, and the harmonious voices of the Choir of Men and Boys.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Of course, the homilies are meaningful, whether delivered by the Dean of the Cathedral, a visiting theologian, or by a guest homilist such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the anthropologist Dr. Jane Goodall or the playwright Anna Devere Smith.

And, they are always thought provoking, too.

Marcel Proust wrote how "Love is space and time measured by the heart." 

In Grace Cathedral, a house of prayer for everyone, I find solace here each time I visit.

And I know God's generous love awaits me.

To learn more about Grace Cathedral:

All photographs by Michael Dickens, © 2014.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Laughing out loud: Remembering Tom Magliozzi

Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers / For 25 years, brothers
Ray and Tom Magliozzi hosted NPR's Car Talk together.

During a 1999 commencement speech to the graduates of M.I.T., Ray Magliozzi, the longtime co-host of NPR's Car Talk with his older brother Tom, shared this bit of wisdom and advice: "I just want to encourage you to never get so involved in your work, whatever it is, that you forget to have fun."

What great advice that each of us should heed, no matter our age. Simply, have fun.

At the same M.I.T. commencement, Tom Magliozzi shared his research that he claimed provided evidence that “being unencumbered by the thought process” leads to greater happiness.

Each week for 25 years, through some 1,200 hour-long episodes each beginning with mandolinist David Grisman's bluegrassy theme song, "Dawggy Mountain Breakdown," Tom and Ray Magliozzi (pronounced mal-YOT-zee) shared not only their happiness, but also a lovable crankiness, plenty of good self-deprecating humor and a whole lot of uncontrollable laughter with their nationwide NPR (National Public Radio) audience that numbered in the millions here in the United States.

Come Saturday morning, we turned on our radios religiously and were treated to a good soul cleansing. 

While the premise of their radio show, Car Talk, was about cars and mechanical repairs, the warmth and humor exuded by Tom and Ray -- not to mention their expert advice about the importance of cars and an appreciation of life -- was timeless and enduring. 

"Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers" as the personable Magliozzi brothers were nicknamed, became like family to us and we trusted them and they welcomed us into their "home" via the radio each week for an enjoyable hour of banter and good jokes. From it all came a lot of memorable one-liners like their signature "Don't drive like my brother," spoken by each at the end of each Car Talk show in a distinguishable Boston accent. The affectionate Magliozzi brothers grew up in a large Italian family in East Cambridge, Mass., and both graduated from M.I.T.

Tom Magliozzi / Enjoying a
good laugh.
On November 3, Tom Magliozzi, 77, passed away from complications from Alzheimer's disease. He died at his home outside Boston.

In a letter to public radio listeners of Car Talk, Ray Magliozzi wrote of his brother: "We can be happy that he lived the life he wanted to live; goofing off a lot, talking to you guys every week, and primarily, laughing his ass off."

Although Tom and Ray (who is 12 years younger) stopped making original episodes of Car Talk in 2012, we are fortunate to have "classic" episodes of Car Talk we can listen to each weekend via NPR and through podcasts, too. The show and its infectious laughter lives on. 

In a remembrance of Tom Magliozzi that aired on NPR's All Things Considered last weekCar Talk's executive producer, Doug Berman, said that when it came to cars, the brothers really did know what they were talking about. Yet, it's not why people listened to the show. "I think it has very little to do with cars," said Berman. "It's the guys' personalities. And Tom especially -- really a genius. With a great, facile mind. And he's mischievous. He likes to prod people into honesty."

Magliozzi's NPR colleague, Peter Sagal, host of NPR's weekly news quiz Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!, writing for Time, said that laughter "was Tom's great gift. All that raucous, distinctive laughter -- who knew you could laugh with a Boston accent? -- was genuine. Whether he was laughing at his brother or a caller with a car problem or his own silly jokes, his pleasure was too immense to be kept private. Everybody knows that Car Talk wasn't about cars. It was about Tommy Magliozzi and his little brother Ray, as they continued their life-long refusal to take each other, themselves, or anything else seriously. And by sheer force of will the self-regarding gray edifice known as public radio eventually did the same."

Sagal added: "Tom was opinionated, passionate, and occasionally profane, but very much the man he seemed to be on the air. He leaves behind his brother and a large family, but also millions of listeners he convinced -- if only for an hour a week -- to just relax and enjoy themselves as much as he did."

While we all share in the sadness of Tom Magliozzi's passing, just like we do when there's a death in our own family, one thing's certain: While he was alive, standing tall, bearded and friendly, Ray's big brother never forgot to have fun.

We should all be so fortunate. 

God rest ye merry gentleman, Tom Magliozzi.

Photos: Ray and Tom Magliozzi, together, courtesy of Google images; Tom Magliozzi, courtesy of Car Talk Facebook page.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Tunisia: Always a sense of hope for a better future

My Facebook friends in Tunisia awoke on Sunday to vote in national legislative elections that will lead to a permanent Parliament being seated. In the almost four years of transition since initialing Arab Spring in this proud North Africa republic -- the smallest country in the Maghreb region -- "despite political assassinations, an emerging insurgency and economic discontent," in the words of The New York Times, there has always been a sense of hope for a better future for Tunisia. 

In my many conversations with my dear Tunisian friends, I have tried to express how democracy can be a beautiful thing, but that it can be a slow process, too. I am proud that several of my friends became involved in the democratic process. Some canvassed for various political parties vying for power such as the well-organized, moderate Islamist Ennahda Party and the secular liberal party Nida Tunis (Tunisia Calls), while others volunteered their time on Election Day working at polling places in cities such as Beja and Ben Arous. Also, a long-time friend of mine has been politically active with the watchdog group I Watch Tunisia, which strives to preserve the gains of the Arab Spring revolution through monitoring political activities for transparency while also educating the electorate. She summed up her feelings on her Facebook page in a single word -- "excited".

As my university-educated friends exercised their democratic right to vote -- and I know many of them expressed to me how proud they were to get out and vote on Sunday -- it gave each a chance to reflect on the state of their beloved country and, importantly, vote their conscience. Together, I know each wants to help make Tunisia a model for moderation, tolerance and democracy in their region of the world. Considering the plight of neighboring Libya and what has befell war-torn Arabic countries like Egypt and Syria, there is much pride in and hope for Tunisia today.

Just last week, Lonely Planet, the largest travel book publisher in the world, named Tunisia as its best value travel destination for 2015, noting that "as the tourism industry begins to recover since some travel warnings have been dropped, the North African destination offers beautiful beaches, as well as cheap and reliable transport. It's modern capital Tunis also reflects its long Ottoman history, and there are Roman remains dotted around the North to be explored."

From my side of the world, I feel the pride and share the hope of my dear Tunisian friends. Sunday was a first step in a journey that continues next month when presidential elections are held. By all accounts, Tunisia's parliamentary election day was free, fair and peaceful -- from Tunis to Mahdia, from La Marsa to Sfax, from Kasserine to Gabes. The returns point to an electorate that wants security and stability -- not to mention a strong economy and a focus on education that will lead to meaningful jobs for university graduates. Based on early election returns and exit polling, it appears that Nida Tunis has won 35 percent of the seats of the 217-member parliament, giving it the right to form a governing coalition. 

God bless my dear Tunisian friends on their historic Election Day. It's just a reminder there's always a sense of hope for a better future.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

How We Got to Now: The power and legacy of great ideas

How We Got to Now / The history behind
everyday objects that are a part of our
contemporary life.

Steven Johnson is a bestselling author of nine books, including Where Good Ideas Come From, a founder of a variety of influential websites, and the host and co-creator of the PBS and BBC series How We Got to Now. His newest book is my current reading project, the just-published How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World.

It is cerebral fun.

In How We Got to Now, Johnson explores the power and legacy of great ideas by investigating the secret histories -- innovation trails -- behind everyday objects that are a part of our contemporary life. He examines "unexpected connections between seemingly unrelated fields: how the invention of air-conditioning enabled the largest migration of human beings in the history of the species to otherwise uninhabitable cities such as Dubai and Phoenix; how pendulum clocks helped trigger the industrial revolution; and how clean water made it possible to manufacture computer chips."

Each of the six innovations that made the modern world, according to Johnson -- glass, cold, sound, cleanliness, time and light -- garners attention in How We Got to Now. 

"Johnson is a polymath," wrote the Los Angeles Times. "It's exhilarating to follow his unpredictable trains of thought. To explain why some ideas upend the world, he draws upon many disciplines: chemistry, social history, geography, even eco-system science."

In the book's opening chapter about glass, for instance, Johnson writes: "Mirrors appeared so magical that they were quickly integrated into somewhat bizarre sacred rituals: During holy pilgrimages, it became common practice for well-off pilgrims to take a mirror with them. When visiting sacred relics, they would position themselves so that they could catch sight of the bones in the mirror's reflection. Back home, they would then show off these mirrors to friends and relatives, boasting that they had brought back physical evidence of the relic by capturing the reflection of the sacred scene. Before turning to the printing press, Gutenberg had the start-up idea of manufacturing and selling small mirrors for departing pilgrims.

"But the mirror's most significant impact would be secular, not sacred. Filippo Brunelleschi employed a mirror to invent linear perspective in painting, by drawing a reflection of the Florence Baptistry instead of his direct perception of it. The art of the late Renaissance is heavily populated by mirrors lurking inside paintings, most famously in Diego Velázquez's inverted masterpiece, Las Meninas, which shows the artist (and the extended royal family) in the middle of painting King Philip IV and Queen Mariana of Spain. The entire image is captured from the point of view of two royal subjects sitting for their portrait; it is, in a very literal sense, a painting about the act of painting. The king and queen are visible only in one small fragment of the canvas, just to the right of Velázquez himself: two small, blurry images reflected back in a mirror.

"As a tool, the mirror became an invaluable asset to painters who could now capture the world around them in a fare more realistic fashion, including the detailed features of their own faces."

Who knew!

In reviewing How We Got to Now, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote: "Monks transcribing religious manuscripts in the 12th and 13th centuries began using pieces of crystal the better to see their work with, and so spectacles were born. And then came Gutenberg, whose printed books created a bigger market for them. In 1610, Galileo used a crystal lens to make the telescope, through which he observed moons orbiting Jupiter, and from there came the doctrine-shattering revelation that the Earth is not the center of the universe.

"The discovery had a reverberating impact that is still being absorbed today. Not only did it reveal a truth about the physical world, it reflected back on the human sense of our place in time and space."

Walter Isaacson, the author of Steve Jobs, calls Johnson "the Darwin of technology. Through fascinating observations and insights, he enlightens us about the origins of ideas."

By connecting all of the important dots through the centuries, Steven Johnson takes us on a wonderful journey through time and innovation. And, in doing so, he makes learning about science and technology great fun.